By ED KENSIK
For Montclair Local
MONTCLAIR — There was a little bit of satisfaction, a little bit of frustration and a little bit of relief for the Montclair boys soccer team on Saturday.
First, the satisfaction was a 1-0 victory over 12th-seeded Verona in the Essex County Tournament quarterfinals at Fortunato Field in Montclair. “I was happy we won,” said Montclair head coach Toure Weaver, but there was the second point.
That was the frustration at the numerous chances missed by the Mounties in the game, especially in the second half. “We were just talking about that,” Weaver said after the game, referring to the team’s post-game huddle.
A lot of the failure to finish scoring chances might have to do with the 2021 edition of the Mounties’ having an almost entirely new group of 11 on the field. “We’re still learning,” the coach said. “The great thing about this team is that they want to learn.”
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And the relief was that though Verona had a few set pieces on the Montclair side of the field with only a few minutes left in the match, Montclair senior keeper Gabriel Smullyan, with the help of defenders Gibson Adams, a sophomore, and seniors Nicholas Calderella and Marcos Raul Gutierrez, was able to preserve the clean sheet.
But a tight match was expected between the two teams. Earlier this season, Montclair came from behind to tie the Hillbillies at two and then won it in the second overtime, 3-2, in Verona.
With the victory, fourth-seeded Montclair (9-1-1) takes on one of its bitterest rivals, top-seeded Seton Hall Prep, in the ECT semifinals. The game is slated for Tuesday night, Oct. 12, in Caldwell. Seton Hall Prep disposed of eighth-seeded Newark East Side, 4-1, on Saturday.
The Mounties faced the Pirates earlier this season, on Sept. 28 at Seton Hall Prep, in a match that ended in a 1-1 tie. The two schools have been the ECT champs the last two times the tournament was held. Montclair defeated Seton Hall Prep in 2018, and then the Pirates defeated the Mounties for the 2019 title. “We can’t wait,” said senior Nick Levine.
Weaver said that starting with the match against Seton Hall Prep, the team needs to tighten up some areas of its play. “We have to tighten up the screws,” he said.
Montclair senior Kerem Bulut scored the game-winner against Verona on Saturday. He’d scored the winner in the regular-season game at Verona as well.
After a corner and a couple of attempts in front of the goal, Bulut headed a shot past Verona freshman keeper Marcus Beninghof with less than five minutes remaining in the first half. Sophomore Torner Salamon assisted on the goal.
“You’re just trying to get any part of your body on the ball,” Bulut, who has five goals on the season, said about the game-winner on Saturday.
For players like Bulut and Levine, this is their time after playing behind several seniors last season, when they affectionately called themselves the “bench mob.”
“We were the bench mob last year and moved onto the field this year,” said Levine, referring to many of the group of 14 seniors this fall. “Now there is a new bench mob.”
Montclair could have easily scored more than a few goals against Verona on Saturday, as it had chance after chance, especially in most of the second half, where they kept Verona keeper Beninghof very busy.
But the Mounties just could not get that extra pass and finish to give themselves some breathing room.
And it was playing with fire for Montclair not to take care of its chances near the end of the game, when Verona was putting on the pressure to score. “Anything can happen,” Weaver said. “They (Verona) are a dangerous team with set pieces.”
Anytime Verona and Montclair face each other it is like “Old Friends Day,” as Verona head coach Jack Webber is a longtime former leader of the Montclair boys soccer program.
“By the end of coaching together, we were finishing each other’s sentences,” joked Weaver, who played for Webber for four years and was his assistant coach for 14 years.
This week, it will be another meeting with “old friends” in Seton Hall Prep for the shot at the ECT final on Saturday at Belleville High School. The Montclair-Seton Hall Prep winner will take on the winner of second-seeded West Orange and third-seeded Livingston. The Mounties’ lone loss so far in 2021 came at the hands of West Orange.